County approves $1.7-million settlement over jail suicide

October 17, 2017
By Press

The daughters of a mentally ill man who jumped to his death in a Los Angeles jail in 2014 will receive $1.7 million under the terms of a settlement approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

Eric Loberg, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and appointed a legal conservator after being found “gravely disabled,” was placed in custody of the county Sheriff’s Department in November 2014.

Despite his history of mental illness, refusal to take medication and a request from the county’s Office of the Public Guardian that he be placed in mental health housing, Loberg was housed in a less secure, two-tier unit at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, according to the complaint filed in district court and a case summary provided to the board. A week later, he jumped headfirst to his death, the complaint says.

“This case represents a perfect storm of deliberate indifference,” attorney Ronald Kaye said by phone Tuesday. “First and foremost he should never have been in a jail setting. … Secondly, they completely dropped the ball in providing him with psychiatric intervention.”

Tuesday’s settlement is among the largest for a jail suicide in L.A. County and will be paid out of the Sheriff’s Department and county Department of Mental Health budgets. It comes two years after the county approved a $1.6-million settlement for another high-profile jail suicide, that of Austin Losorelli, the son of an LAPD lieutenant.

That settlement immediately followed an agreement to implement sweeping reforms to mental health care in county jails after the Justice Department concluded that the Sheriff’s Department had violated inmates’ constitutional rights by failing to provide adequate mental health services.

“With the history of a failure to provide constitutionally mandated mental health care, it’s a travesty that this occurred,” Kaye said.

Loberg, who was 48 at the time of his death, was a high-school graduate who had worked in sales, according to the complaint. He had two daughters, Maria and Erica, with whom he remained close even after suffering from late-onset schizophrenia in his 30s, Kaye said.

In 2013 Loberg was arrested on burglary charges. He was released from jail to Olive View Medical Center on an involuntary psychiatric hold and later deemed “gravely disabled” by a court, the complaint says. The Public Guardian was appointed his conservator, and Loberg was transferred to Olive Vista Behavioral Health Center in Pomona for long-term in-patient care.

In November 2014 he escaped, was picked up by Pomona police and transferred to the custody of the Sheriff’s Department for violating his probation. He was evaluated for suicide risk, but Loberg lied about his mental health history, according to the complaint. After further evaluation he was prescribed an antipsychotic but took it only 20% of the time, according to the case summary.

A representative of the Public Guardian advised the Department of Mental Health that Loberg was a conservatee and gravely disabled, but the department did not request a bed in the “forensic inpatient unit” for mentally ill inmates who present a danger to themselves or others, the complaint says. Instead Loberg was placed in tiered “moderate observation housing,” which presented suicide risks.

“My clients lost their father,” Kaye said, “and the fault is 100% based on failure to treat someone with an objectively clear mental illness.”

The Loberg settlement was approved on the same day that the Board of Supervisors received a report from the Department of Mental Health on the standard of care for mentally ill patients in L.A. County, including a recommendation to develop guidelines for law enforcement when dealing with individuals who meet the criteria for an involuntary psychiatric hold.

Los Angeles County has made the treatment of those with mental illness a priority in recent years, expanding the budget and staff of the Department of Mental Health, including mental health as a consideration in homelessness prevention and housing, and devising strategies to divert the mentally ill from county jails. The county also plans to build a $2-billion replacement for Men’s Central Jail focused on mental health treatment.

The case summary and corrective action plan provided to the Board of Supervisors state that steel mesh barriers have been installed at the jail to prevent jumping, and mental health staff are now required to notify conservators if patients refuse their medications.